Fear of Furniture: Coffee Tables and Me

For most of my life, I never had a coffee table. I always saw a coffee table as a menace--something I would either have to walk around or walk into. Little did I know.

My furniture phobia was confined to this particular item. I did have the requisite assortment of other furniture - tables, chairs, sofas, beds. No "window treatments" - but you get the idea.

Before children, I seemed to cope. I did not know from sofa tables, although I am partial to them now. I married a man who came with lots of end tables and corner tables (in addition to many other good qualities.)

When friends began having children, I noticed that coffee tables finally got their due as the hazards I thought they were. I watched as friends "baby-proofed" their coffee tables - padding the corners, lest they take out one of Baby's baby blues, and encasing the circumference, for when kids started to "cruise". There even were catalogs - and, later, web sites - with products for doing so - lest bubble wrap and masking tape not do.

New parents also seemed to worry about what rested atop the coffee table. Was it breakable? Was it sharp-edged and dangerous? Was it poisonous? Was it a choking hazard? Was it all of the above?

When it was my turn to become a mom, I took numerous terrifying child safety courses. I sent babysitters to them, too. (Once, in a particularly insensitive moment, I made my mother-in-law go.) I don't recall any segment of the training devoted to coffee tables, but perhaps I felt I could safely and smugly ignore that section and restrict my worrying to un-halved grapes, popped popcorn, hotdogs, spacing between crib slats, the exact age at which to remove crib bumpers, and other threats. (When I interviewed pediatricians, I chose ours by how much she failed to flinch when asked, "Can I call you every day?")

I thought I had the perfect set-up. Not owning a coffee table, I didn't need to "bring it up to code" or to hide it in a spare room (I didn't have one of those either). Not owning a coffee table brought additional advantages as well..

First and foremost, no one ever gave me a coffee table book. I still am not sure of the meaning of that classification. Does it refer to a book not worthy of being a book, but of being a decorative item, in the same way that an item described as "a great gift" means it is something no one would buy for personal use?

Second, its absence provided pals with what we executive recruiters call "realistic expectations" about my cooking abilities. After all, would you expect Cordon Bleu from someone who doesn't even have a place to put down a Diet Coke, or would you pray for takeout?

As time went on, and our daughter was older, the absence of a coffee table seemed harder to explain. I did begin to have more people over and even dust off some of those wedding gift wine glasses and watch guests lunge, lurch and stretch to figure out where to put them.

So I gave in and got a coffee table.

It's glass and chrome. It's heavy and consumes gallons of Windex. People do have a place to place a coffee cup. Magazines do pile up. Not to be sure, auction house catalogs, shelter magazines (who am I kidding?) or coffee table books. For about ten months, the coffee table and I tolerated each other and enjoyed a restful détente.

Then, lounging with my family - and who wears shoes when bare feet will suffice? - I leapt up to get something and not all of my toes made it past one of those heavy chrome legs.

I know pain. The anesthesiologist was too late to give me an epidural when my daughter was born. And this pain was (almost) as bad.

After the x-rays, true New Yorker that I am, my first words when the podiatrist, prescribed a surgical shoe for my two broken toes were, "Does it come in black?"

Marilyn Machlowitz is a headhunter in New York.